A girl in the woods reading poetry

For my first post on Books Can Save a Life, I’ll tell a story.

In my hometown near Cleveland, there once was a girl who liked to play hooky from school. She’d walk in the woods and read poetry. Back then, my town still had a rural flavor, with creeks, farmland, and forest where neighborhood kids could play for hours. Poetry and nature were the two things in the world the girl loved most.

When she was seventeen, she got in her car and drove to the home of Edna St. Vincent Millay in upstate New York. The poet had died, but her sister, Norma, lived there. The girl stayed for a time, writing poetry and helping Norma organize Millay’s papers and manuscripts.

Years later, when she won the Pulitzer Prize for her book of poems in the 1980s, I didn’t pay much attention, even though I’d been an English major in college. I was working in New York City and had left my poetry reading days behind.

It wasn’t until I was in my forties and beginning to do some of my own writing that I thought I’d take a closer look at Mary Oliver to see what she was all about.

I hadn’t expected to be stunned. I mean, really. Why had I never read her before?

I could try to describe her poetry with words like “powerful” and “transcendent” and “life-changing,” but I wouldn’t do her work justice.  Let’s just say it was exactly the right time for Mary Oliver’s poems to enter my life.  A lot of it had to do with my novice efforts as a creative writer and with believing in myself.

I believe Mary Oliver used to live in a house just around the corner from where I grew up, though she left home around the time I was born. Our hometown, Maple Heights, has been going through hard times lately, especially since the economic meltdown.  In fact, a Cleveland neighborhood nearby has been called ground zero in the mortgage disaster.

Many homes have been abandoned. Some have been torn down. Wildflowers and weeds are taking over what used to be carefully tended lawns. Much of the wooded areas are gone, but occasionally people spot a deer or two, usually at dusk.

When I go back home to visit, I remember how it used to be. Sometimes I think of a girl skipping school, sitting cross-legged under a big, friendly tree in the woods, reading.


New and Selected PoemsNew and Selected Poems, by Mary Oliver, published in 1992, includes poems from 1963 – 1991. That happens to be the volume I have, but since then there have been additional collected poems by Oliver. “Wild Geese” is another very well known poem by her. It is included in this collection.

4 responses

  1. Val. LOve that you have chosen to do this with “your one wild & precious life ” !…. can’t wait to read more… Bonnie y

  2. Hi Val,

    I never figured you for someone who skipped school for any reason! But reading in the woods is a great reason.

    Take care,

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